Born in Ohio, Gloria Steinem, 82, graduated in 1956 and became a writer. By 1972, when she founded Ms magazine, she was known as a political activist and feminist organiser. She is the author of many books and essays, including the bestselling My Life On The Road. Woman, her documentary series about violence against women, will air on Viceland UK on 8 March. She lives in New York.
What is your greatest fear?
Being about to die, and saying, “But…”
Being held on my mother’s lap while my father drove.
Which living person do you most admire and why?
Dr Denis Mukwege, because he is to sexualised violence against females what Mandela was to apartheid.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Waiting until the last minute.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
It’s a tie between an inability to empathise and having no sense of humour.
Property aside, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?
In my 30s, I was staring at a pair of expensive boots in a shop window when the photographer Gordon Parks came up behind me. He instantly understood, because he grew up even poorer than me; he made me buy them on my credit card.
What would your superpower be?
To be able to show people that we are linked, not ranked.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I’ve wished I had a more angular face. Also, it seems odd to be white in a world that mostly ranges from honey to sable, especially since this groups me with too many people who think whiteness has a superior meaning.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
As a child, Natalie Wood. As a grown-up, I wish I could go from Audrey Hepburn to Cicely Tyson. I admire Marisa Tomei and Meryl Streep, who both play cross class. Of course, Streep could play anything, human or animal, and is a great political activist besides.
What is your most unappealing habit?
Committing myself to more than I can do. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.
What is your favourite smell?
What is your favourite word?
“Hello?” as sarcasm. Also, “Fanfuckingtastic!”
What makes you unhappy?
Seeing anybody rendered invisible.
What book has changed your life?
As a child, Little Women, because it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world.
What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
That I was betraying someone or something I deeply cared about.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
First a horse rancher, then a dancer.
What do you owe your parents?
My mother, a huge debt for creating a loving childhood for me when she didn’t have one. My father, for being OK with insecurity. As he always said, “If I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, it could be wonderful.”
To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
I behaved badly with two old lovers. Years later, when I took one to lunch to apologise, it made it worse.
What does love feel like?
Feeling you want someone else’s welfare as much and sometimes more than your own.
What was the best kiss of your life?
Late one summer night in Manhattan, walking from east and west on the same street until we finally met in the middle.
Which living person do you most despise, and why?
It has to do not just with dislike, but power to hurt, so right now, there is no one who can surpass Donald Trump; not even Putin or Prime Minister Modi, who are right up there.
What’s the worst job you’ve done?
Being a salesgirl in a baby shop where the others said things like, “He’s Jewish, but she’s American.” Also, after college, being a waitress in London, and trying to make change in the old money of shillings and pence.
What has been your biggest disappointment?
Seeing the future die, from Bobby Kennedy to dear friends.
If you could edit your past, what would you change?
Since hostile people still call me a former Playboy Bunny, even at 82, I probably shouldn’t have done that in my youth, even to write an exposé. And since a couple of times they’ve also referred to me as a former CIA agent, because I went to two Soviet-era communist youth festivals, I probably shouldn’t have done that, either. Yet if I hadn’t done both, I might have judged other people by such empty symbols, too.
How do you relax?
Having dinner with friends, walking around the city, reading with my cat on my lap. I’ve never done sports: if there were an Olympic team for sitting still, I would be on it.
After 70 or so, all those brain cells that were devoted to sex are available for other things. It’s not better or worse, just different and equally great.
What is the closest you’ve come to death?
I’ve had cancer three times, but never felt close to death except when I walked between parked cars on my street and a car sped past my nose.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I haven’t done it yet.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who left the world around me a little kinder and less hierarchical.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
To behave as if everything you do matters, because you have no idea which thing might.
I decided, before sending the message, which question-and-response I would pick as most lovely, distinctive and engaging, and it was the last. My daughter Sara picked the same one.